The Root of the Fruit

Jesus tells a parable that reveals the key for figuring out the source of a leader’s authority and that by which we ourselves are motivated.

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The Rod, The Rock, and The Water-Beach Meditation 10

The Rod, The Rock, and the Water

Exodus 17:1-7

17 The whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of Sin, traveling from place to place as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. So they quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.”

Moses replied, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the Lord to the test?”

But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?”

Then Moses cried out to the Lord, “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.”

The Lord answered Moses, “Go out in front of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel. And he called the place Massah[a] and Meribah[b] because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the Lord saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

Philippians 2:1-13

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature[a] God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

12 Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.

In the days before they left Egypt, they had nothing. They were slaves. But God plagued Egypt and the Egyptians supplied Israel with booty of livestock and provisions for their journey. But the wilderness journey was not peaches and cream. First, Israel complained about lacking food for the journey and God rained quail and manna on them. In this passage of Exodus, as the lack of water threatened the lives of the people and their livestock, Israel fell into complaining and quarreling. God sent Moses to strike a rock and God made water to come out of it.

And Moses called the place Massah and Meribah “because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the Lord saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?””

I don’t know what burdens are threatening you or what you are thirsting after. In this pandemic, it could even be literal hunger and thirst as so many are being thrown out of work for extended periods of time. As a result of global warming, many on the west coast have been burned out of their homes and people along the Gulf and Atlantic coast have had their homes washed away in hurricanes. I know my aches, my losses, my challenges and I know that everyone has them in some form or another. Some of those burdens are financial, spiritual, some relational, some physical, and some spiritual. If you think you know someone without a burden or a care, that just means you don’t know them well enough. We all have burdens to bear.

For too many, their thirst in the desert is so great, that, like the Israelites, they find themselves wondering whether the Lord is even with them. I am encouraged that despite their quarreling, testing God, and wondering whether God was among them, God made life-giving water to flow for them to drink.

In 1 Corinthians 10:13, Paul writes, “God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.” The word translated tempted here is a Greek word which also means tested.

We’ve all heard Mary Stevenson’s story about footsteps on the beach.

“One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord. Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky.

In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand. Sometimes there were two sets of footprints, other times there was one only.

This bothered me because I noticed that during the low periods of my life, when I was suffering from anguish, sorrow or defeat, I could see only one set of footprints, so I said to the Lord,

You promised me Lord,

that if I followed you, you would walk with me always. But I have noticed that during the most trying periods of my life there has only been one set of footprints in the sand. Why, when I needed you most, have you not been there for me?”

The Lord replied, “The years when you have seen only one set of footprints, my child, is when I carried you.”

Because we are fallen, we are flawed – beautiful but flawed, like one of these Greek statues with an arm broken off. We grow bitter, turn on one another, and even question God as life’s trials push us to the edge. That is where we meet God’s generous grace. We come to the rock and get life giving water.

In the New Testament, the rock is Jesus. The stick that strikes the rock is the cross. The life-giving water is the Holy Spirit of God that lives in the believers/receivers. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul explains how Jesus put our interests above his own. Rather than using his equality with God to his own advantage, Jesus took on the form of a human with the nature of a servant. A servant willing to die for the Master and to die for us. Then in verse 9, Paul says that God has, in heaven, highly exalted Jesus.

In the upside-down kingdom of God, the way up is down. The way up isn’t by taking advantage of our power, but in humbly doing what is in the best interests of others. Remember the parable of the wedding feast in Luke 14? Jesus said to take the seat in the back, furthest from the seats of honor and let the hosts invite you to a place of greater honor. Jesus was exalted because he became human and sacrificed himself for us. He came down and God raised him up.

Paul’s theme in our passage is that we should have that same love, that love that humbly puts the interests of others ahead of self-interest. As the rod, rock, and water of the Old Testament was a preview of the cross, Christ, and his life-giving Spirit, so our lives are to be reflections of that sacrificial love.

I want to digress for a moment, because I think verse 3 can be a bit misleading. Paul says, “in humility value others above yourselves.” This could be construed as saying other people are better than you are or that you should let other people take advantage of you. Jesus served us not because we had a plan for how to be reconciled with God but because God had a plan. The agenda for how we value others above ourselves is not set by others but by God. We find our path by listening to God’s call to serve in some specific way not by being taken advantage of by someone else’s con.

Your baby may cry for candy when what they need is milk. A challenge in serving others is seeing their need not only from their perspective but from God’s perspective. We must serve with both love and discernment.

It is only God’s grace that can enable someone like myself to get out of my own skin, see someone else’s need from God’s perspective, and take action to help them. I fall so far short in this area.

“God, help me today to be aware of someone else’s need and what I can do to help them find water in the desert.”

Thank you for sharing your time with me. Until next time, may the Creator-God bless you.

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Life, Death, and Living – Beach Meditation 9

The epistle reading for this Sunday contradicts the character in Kenny Chesney’s song.

Philippians 1:21-30

21 For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. 23 I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; 24 but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. 25 Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, 26 so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.

27 Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, 28 and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. 29 For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well— 30 since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.

On the one hand, we have dying and being with Jesus in heaven. By faith Paul gets the wonder of that future. He says, “my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better”. Paul was persecuted and imprisoned for his faith. His life on earth was hard.

There is a strain of Christianity rooted in this tradition. Slaves in the nineteenth century expressed this musically with spirituals like “All My Trials” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” (which I sing at the end of the meditation video).

Our reading from the epistles, also lays out the benefits of continuing to live here on earth. Paul says that life on earth is “more necessary for you” and that he “will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith”.

What a contrast this is with that song we’ve all heard Kenny Chesney sing, “Everybody wanna go to heaven, but nobody wanna go now”. The song goes on to extol the earthly joys of women, whiskey, and partying all night. One of the lines says, “Say I’m coming but there ain’t no hurry,
I’m having fun down here.”

So, what’s the difference between Paul’s perspective and Kenny’s? Paul is focused outwardly on other people. He wants to stay here and help the people into whose lives he’s been called. He doesn’t want to go to heaven because he has a mansion over the hilltop. He wants to go to be with Jesus. For Paul it is all about the people he loves.

For the character in Kenny’s song, it is all about himself and the fun he is having. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” That doesn’t mean that the women and men who answer Christ’s call physically die, although in some parts of the world that is what happens to those who place their faith in Jesus. When Jesus tells us to pick up our crosses and follow him, what does it mean? Jesus gave his life on the cross, not for himself, but for others. To follow him, means we no longer focus on our love for only ourselves but that we love others as we love ourselves.

In dying to self, it might seem that our world gets smaller, but in truth it means our world gets bigger because we move from being absorbed with only ourselves to being absorbed with loving Jesus and all those fellow humans who, like us, are created in God’s image. For our season here, we are blessed by being a blessing to our associates, friends, family, and faith community. And when our time on earth is done, we have a family reunion in heaven, the chief reunion of which will be with Jesus.

When you hear Paul’s words lined up against Kenny’s lyrics, you may be thinking, “I’m more like Kenny.” Try to remember that the story of the gospel is the story of God’s grace for us right where we are in our growth. If we trust Jesus and try to walk with him one step at a time, we grow more and more likely to begin to see both life and death through his eyes and with his heart for others. We both rest in his grace, knowing he loves us as who we are now, and grow in grace, because walking with him changes us.

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Fool Me Once, Forgive 77 Times

 Fool Me Once, Forgive Seventy-Seven Times

Matthew 18

21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

“To err is human; to forgive, divine” ~ Alexander Pope

My father-in-law rose through the ranks from mason to managing the construction of skyscrapers and at least one concert hall. Late in life, as he lay in his hospital bed, he was troubled by something. Was it an issue with finances or family? Was it the state of world politics? No, it was that he could see a brick wing of the hospital and some of the courses of bricks were out of level.

After years of laying a level to check that a job was done right, he had trained his eye to a point that impressed his co-workers. One of them told of a time that he stopped while driving past and called a foreman over. “The finial up there on top of that column isn’t level,” Roy said, pointing. “We checked it.” “Check it again.” So, they checked it again and found that Roy was right.

It is hard to imagine being so attuned to level and plumb that every architectural element that was out of kilter was offensive to you.

In one way, being an idealist is similar to being a master mason. Idealism can be a blessing. Our vision of what ought to be is strong. We have ideals to guide us in our personal lives.

But when things are out of kilter in our real-world experiences, we are keenly aware of it and disappointed. Our romance doesn’t play out like the Hallmark movies we love. Our families are not like the Waltons. We ourselves don’t live up to our early vision of the person we would become.

One place where this idealism causes real problems is the church. Long before Instagram had people posting pictures of a fake but “ideal” life, people were “putting on a good face” to go to church. They wanted “to be a good witness” so they went to church and pretended like everything in their life was level and plumb. For generations now, the church has become a place to feign perfection because we think it is good PR for the gospel message of the church.

That the church is composed of saintly, holy, totally together people who always support one another and build one another up, is of course a lie. The church isn’t now nor has it ever been made up of people like that. But because we have been projecting that ideal as a reality, we have actually created a PR disaster. Most of the world thinks of us as hypocrites. Anyone who knows a church goer, including myself. Knows we are far from person we aspire to be and know that our church is far from achieving the community it pretends to be.

Jesus is rare in his ability to hold an ideal while simultaneously seeing the reality of humans as individuals and in community. Earlier in this chapter, he talks about how he leaves the 99 to bring back the 1 who goes astray. He talks about the principles of how Christians go about restoring someone who sins. In this Sunday’s gospel reading Peter blurts out the question most of us would be too timid to ask in Sunday school, let alone directly to Jesus.

“Yeah, yeah, I get it. If they sin against God, we try to restore them to God and the church, BUT . . .”

“Lord, if another member of the church sins AGAINST ME, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”

Seven times is a lot. Remember, Gomer Pyle’s grandmother used to say, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” When someone burns us, even once, it can be hard to forgive. Each time after that, the bond that holds us in relationship becomes weaker. Peter’s number of seven times is actually a huge number when you look at the pain of being sinned against seven times.

How many times has someone hurt you? Sometimes unintentionally, sometime intentionally. That hurt is real. It is undeniable. Peter, are you crazy? You think we should go through that seven times?

Hold on a hot minute. That was just Peter’s guess. Let’s see what Jesus says.

“Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”

To make it worse, an equally valid translation would be “seventy times seven”. Jesus is using hyperbole. His point is that there is no limit to how many times we should forgive.

A realist knows that people are going to sin against one another. That’s one reason why the Bible spills so much ink addressing sin and forgiveness. A realist knows that people are going to sin against one another in their private lives, in their business dealings, and in their church.

As a realist Jesus addresses our sinfulness. As an idealist, he says we can’t set limits to how many times we forgive those who sin against us. If we have a limit, we will not have relationships.

Now some look at this and conclude that Christians must become door mats, the meek who are constantly walked on by the unscrupulous. So, it is important that we unpack the difference between forgiveness and restoration or capitulation.

In last week’s passage, Matthew 18:15-20, we saw that the sinner had to listen when told about their wrong-doing. This isn’t the kind of listening that simply involves one’s brain decoding the vibrations of one’s eardrums. This is the kind of listening that involves empathy for the other person and recognition that one’s words and/or actions were wrong. The plumb line and level applied to the behavior have revealed that the behavior doesn’t line up with God’s standards.

Until a person empathizes with the hurt they have caused in someone else, sees their behavior as wrong in the eyes of God, and chooses a corrective course of action, they cannot be restored. For their part, unless the wronged brothers and sisters of the church family, forgive the sinner the fellowship is not restored.

To forgive includes stopping our resentment and anger toward someone who has wronged us. The parable in Matthew 18:23-35, makes clear that forgiveness includes canceling the “debt” of the wrongdoer. It is giving up the “You owe me for that!” mindset.

We’ve been told to “forgive and forget”. That is a well-intentioned attempt to tell us to let it go. We should let go of our resentment, our anger, our ill will toward someone who wrongs us. But I’m with Grandma Pyle. We should not forget. Until someone really hears how what they’ve done is wrong, they are quite likely to continue their pattern of sinning against us (and most likely others).

We have the right, if not the duty, to protect ourselves and others from repeated injury. But we don’t need to carry the baggage of anger, resentment, or hate as we draw boundaries. Hanging on to that negative energy only hurts us.

For us to live in community with family, friends, or the church requires a special skillset. We need the courage to address wrongdoing in our community. We need the ability to forgive wrongdoing. We need the ability to restore fellowship to someone who hears reproof and corrects course. We need to recognize our own wrongdoing and be willing to change our behavior. We need the ability to draw protective boundaries so that we don’t continue to be hurt while preparing our hearts for the return to fellowship when those who sinned against us turn from their patterns of sin.

Let’s be real with one another, we humans are always hurting one another. No, it’s not just you experiencing that. If we can’t talk, empathize, change, forgive, and restore relationships, we simply will not have relationships. We have done the gospel message a disservice by putting a good face on our churches which are actually full of messy relationships.

Yes, the church has answers. The answers aren’t platitudes or “fake it till you make it”. The answers are challenging tools for real (messy) people in real (messy) relationships. I love idealistic visions that depict the kind of world we wish we lived in. I’m a huge fan of Hallmark movies and schmaltzy music. But for answers to real world problems, I need the church to be real. I don’t want or need easy answers. I want answers that work. I believe if we, the church, get real, we’ll be far more appealing to this world filled with other messy people in their messy relationships.

Thank you for sharing this time with me. May God bless you.

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Beach Walk Meditation 1 – God and Gender

I had just finished surfing and started thinking about God and gender as I was sitting in my chair and hydrating. I decided to take a walk down the beach and share my thoughts. In the past, I couldn’t do this with my iPhone because I walk with a limp. Then the video was so wobbly I couldn’t watch it. But with the GoPro Hero 7 hypersmooth setting the world stands steady. Of course my head still bobs up and down! Anyway, I’m interested to know what you think about the direction of my own thoughts about God and gender. I encourage you to comment on my YouTube channel and remind you to be kind to one another.

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